Archive for January, 2019

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Addendum on II Corinthians 5:21

Saturday, January 19th, 2019

My first post in the series A Universalist Looks at the New Testament covered II Corinthians 5. I didn’t necessarily give the greatest explanation for verse 21 — “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

I’m currently reading a book called Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, by J. D. Myers. It’s about the theology of the cross. I have just begun the book. I don’t know if the author is a universalist, but I do find myself agreeing with the theology. One thing I’m sure he’s teaching is that God is not mad at us, that Jesus did not die to save us from God.

Anyway, today I read a section talking specifically about II Corinthians 5:21, on pages 62-63. I’m going to copy out that section here. It’s out of context — but if you find it intriguing, I recommend reading the whole book.

This is an important text in the discussion of sin because Paul writes that Jesus became sin for us. When we think of sin as some sort of ethereal force which causes people to do bad things or as disobedience to God’s commands, this verse makes very little sense. If sin is a spiritual presence or polluting force brought about by disobedience to God, how can it be said in any way that Jesus “became sin”? But when we understand sin as rivalrous, scapegoating violence done in God’s name, we see that this is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross. Every aspect of the passion narratives in the Gospels is designed to reveal that since Jesus was viewed as a rival to both religious Judaism and political Rome, He was chosen as a scapegoat to create peace among the people. Then, as often happens with scapegoats, Jesus was murdered in the name of God. So although Jesus never practiced sin and was completely innocent of all rivalry, scapegoating, and violence, He became sin for us (not for God!) so that we would see sin for what it really was. In Jesus, the sin of humanity — the rivalrous, scapegoating, and violence we commit in God’s name — was clearly revealed for all to see. He became sin! When we look at Him on the cross, we finally see our sin for what it really is. Through the crucifixion, sin was unveiled before our eyes so that we would see that all scapegoats were wrongly killed, that God was never behind our religious violence, and that God was calling all people to follow Him in loving forgiveness toward one another.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Gehenna

Saturday, January 19th, 2019

It’s time for another installment of A Universalist Looks at the New Testament because today’s Scripture passage was Mark 9:30-50.

Before I talk about the passage, I’m going to post a pretty picture from a Sonderquote I just posted from a book on universalism.

But Mark 9:42-48 is a passage that people use to say that Jesus taught that sinners will go to hell.

Again, I do believe in hell and judgment, actually — but not that it will last forever. But I don’t think Jesus is even talking about that here.

This is what the passage says, using the New International Version:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die and the fire is not quenched.'”

The word that’s been translated “hell” is the Greek word Gehenna.

Rather than try to explain it myself, for this one I’m going to quote from two other universalist authors.

First from Randy Klassen’s book, What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell?, pages 46-47:

“A great millstone hung around the neck,” “unquenchable fire,” “hell, where their worm never dies,” — such are the colorful terms for God’s judgment on those sins. The language is typical rabbinical hyperbole. The image of fire is a perfect metaphor for the fire of God’s judgment. Jesus no more intended a literal description of hell than for his hearers to cut off their hands or legs or pluck out their eyes. Moreover, it is hardly consistent with all resurrection passages to imagine the saints rising with limbs or eyes missing!

Since we do not take literally the drowning with a great millstone around the neck, nor the mutilation of the body parts that offend, is it not inconsistent to take these references to hell as literal? Yet time after time does one read reference to this passage as proof that Jesus taught a literal hell!

It is probably appropriate here to examine the word translated as “hell.” It is Gehenna, the name of the Valley of Hinnom, the ever-burning garbage dump southwest of Jerusalem. It had an evil history. Under the depraved leadership of King Ahaz, Israel was encouraged to worship the god Molech and burn little children there as an offering to this pagan god. King Josiah put a stop to that practice and labeled the area accursed. Thereafter Gehenna became a sort of public incinerator. Always the fire smoldered in it, a pall of thick smoke lay over it, and it bred a loathsome kind of worm that was hard to kill. Often the bodies of the worst criminals would be deposited here.

George W. Sarris brings up the same things in his book Heaven’s Doors, and has some things to add, beginning on page 118:

What comes to your mind when you hear the word Auschwitz?

In the future, it’s possible that the word will take on a more metaphorical meaning. But right now, while the actual place still exists as a museum and in the memories of some who knew it firsthand, it reminds us of the repulsion, shame and horrible deaths experienced by those who suffered in Nazi concentration camps in World War II.

During the time of Jesus, Gehenna was well-known as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with gross idolatry in the past and was then used as the common sewer of the city.

The corpses of the worst criminals were flung into it unburied, and fires were lit to purify the contaminated air. For the Jews of that day, it also implied the severest judgment that a Jewish court could pass on a criminal — throwing his unburied body into the fires and worms of that polluted valley.

Like Auschwitz, Gehenna was a place the people of Jesus’ day could actually visit. It spoke to them of repulsion, shame and horrible death. Instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been disposed of in a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses….

Gehenna was definitely a reference to God’s judgment. But it was a judgment on earth. It was considered a temporary place of punishment. It never meant endless punishment beyond the grave.

The authors of the Apocrypha written between 500-150 BC, Philo who wrote around AD 40, and Josephus who wrote from AD 70-100, all refer to the future punishment of the wicked, but none of them ever use the word Gehenna to describe it.

He does have more to say about when Gehenna started being used differently — much later than Jesus. And even when it was seen as a place of future punishment, it was not eternal.

He’s got a whole chapter on Gehenna if that’s not enough, and I highly recommend the book!

I found another author who mentions Gehenna. Thomas Allin in Every Knee Shall Bow points out that bodies were already dead when they were thrown into Gehenna — so this wasn’t even talking about torment.

While I believe our Lord did not threaten everlasting torment if His words are correctly understood, yet they do convey a solemn warning to sinners. This warning should hold more weight than threats of eternal torment because the conscience can see the justice in it.

So that’s why I don’t think this passage contradicts universalism.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament — Mark 8

Monday, January 14th, 2019

I’ve begun a new series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament. I’m paralleling the reading of the New Testament that my church is doing (though I began this three months after the church did), and taking a look at verses that relate to universalism — the belief that God will, eventually, save everyone.

I’ll be honest — today’s passage, Mark 8:34-38, is a little tougher to read from a universalist perspective. Part of my point in doing this series is to show that there are tough passages from both perspectives, passages that both sides need to read a little bit into. Once I saw that you can interpret the Bible either way, I chose the view that I thought fit better with God’s character, as shown throughout the Bible. But we aren’t at the point of drawing conclusions yet in this series.

Mark 8:34-38 says, “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.'”

I’m going to start with that last verse, “The Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Let me make it clear that even though I believe that all will — eventually — be saved, I still believe there will be a great judgment after death. I believe in hell — but not that it will be “eternal.” We’ll see this in other passages, but the Greek word that is translated “eternal” doesn’t have a good equivalent in English. It’s “eonian,” “of the eons,” or “of the ages.” It means an indefinite time period, or may even mean an eternal quality.

How I think it will go is this: There will be a judgment. Some will spend time — maybe eons — in hell, until the day when they will turn back to God the Father. At the “end of the ages,” God will be all in all and every knee will bow before Jesus.

So when the Son of Man comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels will be the day of judgment and is not inconsistent with this view.

That’s also the approach I take to “will lose” their life. You might say, well, losing your life sounds permanent. However, the same word is used in the second part of the sentence, “whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” That second lose is talking about life on earth. The first lose may be talking about the time (maybe even eons) of judgment.

I’ll be honest — this isn’t the greatest explanation in the world. If there weren’t multiple verses in many different places saying that God loves the whole world and in Christ all will be made alive — then I don’t think I could accept universalism. But given all those other verses, I do think it fits. One thing it does point out — no matter how much I believe in universalism, I still hope that people will come to Jesus before they die. That can actually save their lives.

But please bear with me as we continue through the New Testament….

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – II Corinthians 5

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

Somewhere around 20 years ago, I became a universalist after reading writings of George MacDonald.

George MacDonald’s writings clearly show that he loved the Lord with all his heart and that he believed the Bible and knew it well, referring to the original Greek often. When I realized that he was teaching that all will (eventually) be saved, I was puzzled.

The Bible doesn’t teach that, does it? And yet George MacDonald clearly thought it did.

So — I read the New Testament through, asking if it could be interpreted this way. Much to my surprise, it can!

Since then, I’ve read many more books about universalism. I discovered that for the first 500 years of the church, universalism was the prevailing teaching! I am now convinced it’s true — and how my heart rejoices in that belief!

[Please note: George MacDonald still believed in hell and judgment, but not that it will last forever and ever to infinity. Some day, at the end of the ages, all will be saved and the last penny will be paid.]

That brings me to my new blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament.

Last October, my church began reading through the New Testament together, using a booklet that assigns readings from the gospels and from the epistles for each day.

While reading through the New Testament, I’m making note of the passages that relate to universalism. I was pointing them out to a friend in emails, but decided I wanted to make them blog posts. And today’s passage — II Corinthians 5:11-21 is a wonderful, epic place to start. (I will catch up on what we read last October through December — probably this coming October through December.)

The most obvious places to start, in fact, are the ALL verses.

Look at II Corinthians 5:14-15 — “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Does all mean ALL there? Or only some? If Jesus died for all, and therefore all died in Him — won’t all receive life?

Please just sit with the idea that all means all.

But there’s more I want to talk about in this passage.

This part is not universalism. But George MacDonald also took great exception with any theology that taught that Jesus had to save us from God. He says many times in his writings, “There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God.”

I’ve read other writers about the cross, and have come to think that evangelicals tend to overemphasize the “payment metaphor.” If we’re teaching that God could not forgive us without Christ dying a horrible death, I think we’ve got it wrong.

If we’re teaching that God can’t look on us because we’re so sinful, I think we’ve got it wrong.

But especially: God is not mad at us! God forgives. And Paul says here, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

Notice: God is doing all the work. He wants to bring us to Himself. He loves us.

One more note: According to the Concordant version of the New Testament (which translates each Greek word of the original into only one word of English) and according to a note in the New International Version, verse 21 might better be translated: “God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The sin offerings of the Old Testament weren’t ever thought of as payment for sins. When you sinned, you brought a sin offering to restore your relationship with God. But you were the one out of sync.

There’s a whole lot more I could say about this beautiful passage. I’ll leave it with these two things:

Does ALL mean ALL?

And notice that it’s people who need to be reconciled.